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LEADERSHIP : Ramos Takes Low-Profile Approach in Philippines


MANILA — Historians will record that the first official act this week of newly elected Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos was to sign an executive order extending tax-free imports of cement and clinker, a construction compound.

Never known for soaring rhetoric or bold action, Ramos, the general dubbed "Steady Eddie," maintained a low profile and no-frills approach as he assumed leadership of this troubled country. His most dramatic act was to order hundreds of Malacanang Palace aides to appear at 6 a.m. for his administration's first workday; he arrived an hour late because of other appointments.

Ramos, who reportedly rises before dawn each day, continues to stay at the plush Manila Hotel, while an official residence near Malacanang is spruced up. His predecessor, Corazon Aquino, has disappeared into private life, moving back to her family's modest one-story bungalow. She is writing Chapter 6 of her account of her stormy six-year term.

Aquino is unlikely to be missed by the military. Maj. Gen. Loven Abadia, commander of the air force, recently revealed that he has only two operable jet fighters, Vietnam-vintage F-5s, to defend the island nation.

No air attacks are anticipated, but other problems loom. Diplomatic envoys who met with Ramos pleaded with him to help solve the country's growing law-and-order problem, in which lawmen seem to cause the most disorder. In the most recent case, 10 police were arrested in San Fernando for the torture-murder of three women suspected of shoplifting; a fourth victim was found still alive in the morgue.

It is unclear how much help Ramos will get from his new vice president, Joseph (Erap) Estrada. The potbellied former action movie star, who appeared visibly confused as he recited his oath of office Tuesday, didn't show up for either the first Cabinet meeting or his first day of work. Although Ramos appointed Estrada chief "crime-buster," making him chairman of a presidential anti-crime commission, Estrada carped that he would not accept the job unless it had "enough teeth" to be effective.

Ramos' new Cabinet, filled with technocrats, businessmen and career bureaucrats, has won general praise, even if his plans to revive the weakest non-communist economy in Southeast Asia remain somewhat vague.

The top economic post, secretary of finance, went to Ramon del Rosario Jr., a wealthy, Harvard-trained banker and son of the current ambassador to Japan. He has promised to seek a restructuring of the $29-billion foreign debt, ease foreign-exchange controls, lower tariffs to encourage foreign investment and improve largely ineffective tax collection.

Ramos chose Peter Garrucho Jr., his campaign manager, to be executive secretary and energy adviser. The country has suffered so many blackouts since March that officials have publicly promised that life will improve in the coming typhoon season, when rain will feed drought-starved hydroelectric plants. But so far, early rains have unleashed giant debris-flows from the Pinatubo volcano that have washed away four new dams and flooded several towns.

Ramos picked businessman Roberto Romulo, son of a former well-known foreign minister, to be foreign secretary. Ramos has pledged to shift the foreign portfolio away from traditional diplomacy and toward trade and investment. Renato de Villa, a retired general, remains secretary of defense.

One sign of changing times was that the White House was represented at Ramos' swearing-in by Elaine Chao, the Peace Corps director. No American ambassador attended.

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